An Apple Watch Weekend: Initial Impressions of the Watch from a Long-Time Holdout

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Intro

For a long time, I've wanted an Apple Watch. I held back for several reasons, not the least of which was because I didn't know if it was worth the money. When a tiny little watch costs around the same price as the latest iPad, it gives one pause. If you're in the same boat, I hope this post will be of some use. If you've never wanted an Apple Watch at all, I encourage you to read on. I've been as fair and unbiased as I can be, so you'll find plenty of criticism and honest assessment. You might, though, discover aspects of this device you never thought of before.

The Apple Watch came out in April of 2015. At that time, though I was very intrigued, I was stopped from getting one by two factors. First, I didn't have the money to spare; second, I knew that most Apple products are good in their first iteration, but great in their second. I figured I'd wait a year, until the next generation Watch came out. At that time, I'd see if I had the money and look at what the new Watch had, to judge if it would be worth buying.

Now, in February of 2016, I found a great offer. I got a full-time job not long ago, so have some disposable income, and my local Best Buy had an open box offer: a 38mm space-gray Sport for $211. That's almost $150 off the normal price, and I'd gotten paid two days before, so I shrugged to myself and Cosby and I walked down to the store. Cosby had a hard time trying to guide me around snowbanks and puddles, but we made it to the shining castle wherein lay my prize. Lest you think me selfish, my plan wasn't to buy myself a Watch with only weeks to go before the next generation was rumored to be announced. Instead, I was going to buy the Watch, and let myself, my mother, and my sister all try it for four days each. If one of them loved it, they could keep it. If not, it would go back to the store and I would still await the next one. I never had plans to keep this unit for myself.

When I got home, we discussed schedules, and determined that Mom would wear it from Sunday through Thursday night. I would take it that night and set it up with my own account, then wear it Friday through Sunday night. My sister would get it then, and wear it until Thursday night. I would then get it again for the last couple days, when we would all evaluate our experiences and find out if one of us was too in love to let it go back to the store.

As I write this, I'm on the last day of my first weekend with the Watch--in fact, it's secured comfortably to my left wrist even as I type this. Mom has had her turn, and my sister will take my Watch from me in a few hours. Having used iOS devices for five years, I'm very familiar with how they operate without a Watch to supplement them. I figured it would take me a few days to really get used to using the Watch alongside my iPhone 6s Plus, and I worried that four days for each of us wouldn't be long enough to form a real opinion. I was very, very wrong.

As with so many things Apple, I took to the Watch within hours. I spent some time on the phone with AppleVis' resident Watch Expert, asking him about the few things I hadn't already known from all the articles, blogs, and podcasts I've consumed since the Apple Watch came out last year. It wasn't long before I was responding to messages, customizing my Modular watch face, and testing out all the other features I'd heard so much about.

The next morning, I was up by 5:00 AM, and immediately strapped my Watch on. I entered my passcode, and we were off. I checked the time and weather periodically throughout the morning, and was reminded to download something later that morning by my Watch--not my phone! At intervals throughout the day, I would feel some quick pulses on my wrist and would tap the screen, only to be told to stand up. I soon grew to recognize the pattern, and would stand when I felt it rather than waste time looking at the text. The same thing happened once I'd stood for long enough--the Watch would tell me I was all set and could sit back down (I work at a desk job). By the end of the day, my "stand goal" was at one hundred percent. I always knew the time and the weather outside, and never had to worry about hauling out my phone to check my notifications. VIP emails, texts, and a few other important items are set to go to the Watch, so I could safely ignore all notifications on my phone during the work day.

It wasn't all roses, though. I had trouble dictating one text, and another failed to send entirely, for some reason. My work has internet so fast that I can regularly download files at speeds approaching five megabytes per second, yet an iMessage failed to send? That was odd. I also set a reminder for early in the morning, which went off… On my iPhone. Yet, the next reminder (and the few I've set since that day) all worked on the Watch. Finally, lag is a serious concern. Swiping around isn't bad, and you grow to expect short delays--I compare it to using an iPhone with VoiceOver while listening over bluetooth headphones. However, the lag gets worse when you swipe between Glances or pull down Notifications. It's not terrible, but when our iPhones and other Apple products have made us expect instant responses, it can be frustrating to wait one to three seconds for the Watch to do anything. Once, I tapped 'Reply' on a message, touched the Dictate button, and double tapped. The screen hadn't finished loading, however, because even as I double tapped, focus jumped to the top of the screen and I ended up sending a 'canned response' instead of activating the dictation function. Now that I know to watch (pun absolutely and unapologetically intended) for it, it's not as big an issue. Still, if Apple could do something about it, I would be very grateful.

The Good

After just three days of active use, I've come up with the things I really like--and will miss once I hand the Watch off--about this device.

It's a Watch

I used to wear a braille watch with a heavy, sturdy, metal band all the time. As I got more into computers, I found myself checking the analog watch less and less, and taking it off to type more and more. Eventually, I was using my phone or a computer for time-checking so often that I stopped wearing the braille watch. I still have it, but the battery is long dead and I have no plans to put it on again. Having wrist-mounted access to the time is, surprisingly, quite nice. With its thinner Sport band, I never have to take the Apple Watch off to type comfortably, and I don't have to worry about moving the hands or having such a heavy item on my wrist.

An More Than a Watch, Too

Yes, having the time close to hand is great, although I'd rather Apple put in a way of checking the time with vibrations only. The Apple Watch offers so much more, though: calendar events, weather, fitness goals, and a great deal of functionality through Siri, all from the watch face. That means I can access any of those with a single tap on the screen. That's to say nothing of the glances and apps I can get to with a gesture or button press. Yes, much of this requires my iPhone to be nearby, but I may as well be surgically attached to my phone anyway, so that's no problem for me.

Notification Filtering

On my iPhone, I get all sorts of notifications--Twitter, Facebook, Test Flight app updates, Dice World, messages, VIP emails (often from my boss), and more. Messages have their own vibration, but everything else feels the same, assuming I noticed the specific vibration pattern at all. That means I have to take out my phone and look at what just arrived on my Lock Screen. This isn't usually a big deal, but if I'm in the car and my phone is on my belt, behind a seatbelt, coat, and shirt, it gets old fast. With the Apple Watch, I can filter notifications, only letting messages, phone calls, VIP emails, and fitness items through. That way, I can safely ignore my phone during the work day but know that my Watch will alert me of anything important. I can also ignore calls or reply to messages, all without touching my phone. Of course, for longer replies I'll use my phone and its braille input, but if the message can be dictated or handled by a canned response, it's more convenient to do that without using iOS at all.

This extends to an area I hadn't considered before: entertainment. If I'm out for a walk or doing things around the house, I nearly always have a book/movie/podcast playing over my bluetooth headphones, with my iPhone locked and in my pocket. Notification sounds, and VoiceOver's announcement of the new alert, then time, then how many notifications I now have, causes me to lose seconds of audio. Since I keep my podcast and book-reading speeds quite high, a few seconds can mean missing quite a bit of information. Now, with the Apple Watch, I can mute my phone and turn speech off. I'll get important items on my wrist, and can pause my media before looking at what just came in. This lets me enjoy my entertainment without fear of interruption, while still being connected and able to deal with anything important that comes my way.

Fitness

I'm into fitness at a casual level. I watch what I eat, with the occasional cheat day, and I try to do something physical a few times a week. My Watch makes this much easier, without being in my face about it. I'm told to stand up for a few minutes if I've been sitting too long, and I can tell it to track the walks Cosby and I take, or the body-weight exercises I sometimes do. It can watch my heart rate, feel my motions, and have a good guess at how many calories I've burned. Plus, all the information goes into the Health app should I ever need to review it later. Finally, any HealthKit-aware apps (such as my calorie intake tracker or workout app) know about the activity right away. All I had to do was tell Siri on my Watch to "start an outdoor walk" or "start a workout", stop and save it when I'm done, and Apple's services take care of the rest.

The Bad and Annoying

I'm not trying to say the Apple Watch is perfect, or that I've had time enough to fully and fairly evaluate it. There are things about it I love, and things that I don't love so much, or that baffle me. Some of these complaints could be my own fault, and some may be eliminated in the next software/hardware updates. Today, though, they're valid annoyances.

Lag

I mentioned the lag problem before, and how it's akin to using bluetooth headphones with iOS, but gets much worse when swiping through glances or opening notifications. If you're just playing around or casually checking something, this isn't a big deal. If you need an answer fast, or are rushing to reply to a text, it can drive you nuts. Making it worse is that the screen will sometimes go to sleep even though I just woke it up, or during a long app load. Yes, a single tap will wake it up again, but it almost feels like the watch is blowing me off. Yes, i know how strange that sounds, but it's true.

Random Limitations/Problems

As I said before, twice in one day I had one message fail to dictate and another fail to send… Over a very, very high-speed connection. I also tried telling Siri to tweet something, but was told I'd have to use my iPhone. If I can… Sorry, my Watch told me to stand up and move for a minute, but I'm back now. Anyway, I was saying that if I can dictate messages on the Watch, and view tweets on the Watch, why can't I dictate tweets on the Watch? I also ran into problems trying to reply to notifications using Tweetings for Apple Watch, but I don't know if that's due to Tweetings or watchOS.

Battery

I took a 2.02-mile walk yesterday, and had my Watch track it (which is how I know it was 2.02 miles). Later that night, I was going to head down to the basement for a quick workout, which I would have the Watch monitor, but noticed I only had 15% battery left. I didn't think that would be enough, so I had to put the Watch on its charger for half an hour first. As I said, this is the 38mm version; the 42mm (which is the one I'll get for myself) might last longer. Still, to have such a low battery after only about fourteen hours of use isn't cool. Perhaps I'm spoiled by my plus-sized iPhone, which almost never has less than 30% battery by the end of the day, but I get annoyed when my electronics want to go to bed before I do.

Inconsistent Crowns

The "digital crown" is supposed to let you scroll through lists or move forward or back in time using Time Travel. It does those things, but it's hard to tell how far you're moving. There's no definite increment to it, as far as I can tell, and using the Crown to scroll often feels more like guessing. The main problem seems to be the lag (again). If VoiceOver could provide more timely voice feedback as you scroll, it would be easier to know where you are. it takes long enough to speak, though, that you have to scroll; pause; wait; listen to speech; then scroll again.

Small Inconsistencies

There are a few odd omissions and missing features on the Watch. For instance, on an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, you can push harder on anything under your finger to activate it, instead of double- or split-tapping. On the Watch, you can't do that, despite this being the first-ever device to include Force Touch. It's possible that this is because the watch can only handle hard presses on the entire screen, and can't know where on the screen you pressed. If it's possible to bring this feature to watchOS, though, I'd love to see it.

VoiceOver is missing a few other useful features, like the ability to adjust the speaking rate from the Watch itself. There's also no kind of rotor at all, even though there's room for me to do the gesture on even the 38mm screen. I get the appeal of having one-finger swipes up and down always cycle through possible actions, but I've run across situations where it would be nice to have word- or character-level review for a message. I'd also like to have a rotor for quick access to VoiceOver settings, such as sounds or speech rate. I don't use more than one language, but I imagine many people would prefer to have the ability to choose a language on the fly as they read incoming messages.

What's Next?

We have one more week before this Watch can no longer go back to Best Buy, and my sister is the only one of the three of us who hasn't yet taken it for a spin. Right now, I expect that she or my mother will want to keep it, which I thought might happen even before I left the store last Sunday. I like using it and would very much love to have one of my own, but I don't want to do that until I see what happens at Apple's March event. I want to wait for the second generation, and I want the 42mm version besides. The other two people involved in this test, though, aren't at all concerned by the smaller screen and don't care that this is a first-generation device.

And yes, despite all my negative points, I still very much want one. Do I need it? No, I've gotten along for years without a watch of any kind, and my iPhone can do far more, far faster. Yet… Notification filtering, fitness tracking, instant access to so much information, and simply having the time available right away all add up to something I don't feel would be a waste of money at all. Besides, I just feel… cool when I wear it, knowing what it can do and how easily it can do it. It's also nice to have my heartbeat measured and stored all the time. I don't have any kind of condition that would make such tracking important, I just like having the data if I ever need it. The Apple Watch isn't something I'd get because it will be necessary in my life. Like upgrading to a new iPhone, it's something I'd get because I very much want it and because it can offer things my current technology just can't. Not vital things, sure, but convenient and/or fun things that make life easier and, in this case, healthier.

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5 Comments

Great Review

Great review Alex.
You make me really really want one. I love the idea of getting all my notifications on my rist. i really hope to get one real soon. Thanks for the great review.

TimeBuzz for knowing the time by vibrations

Hi, you wrote that you'd like that Apple put in a way to know the time by vibrations. Maybe you already know about this app, but the app TimeBuzz offers the possibility to check the time silently, because it uses vibration patterns. The app is not free but I think it costs 0,99 so that is not too much...

Re: TimeBuzz

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Thanks for the suggestion. I checked out TimeBuzz within my first hour of using the Apple Watch, but it wasn't for me. To use it effectively, you must mute the Watch; set it to load the last thing you were doing instead of the clock face; disable VoiceOver; and, optionally, disable Prominent Haptics. All this just to silently check the time may be worth it in some situations, but it's a great deal of toggling and option-setting if I just want to check the time during a conversation or quick meeting. Yes, there are times you plan on needing quiet and can set things up accordingly, but there are also times that come out of the blue or that you simply forget/lack time to prepare. While TimeBuzz is a good app, it's limited by watchOS and can only do so much at present. Either Apple lift the restrictions, or make a built-in version themselves.

native apps

How do native apps work on the watch? Is it possible to run any app completely independently on the watch or must you always have your phone connected. This is the major point that turns me off this device. I feel like $350 is far too much for a device htat is basically an extension of the iPhone. I either want to see this become a true product of its own, or if we must continue to be tied to the iPhone, a major reduction in price to $100 or less. I also want to see the hardware vastly improve. From what I've read, the watch has a 520 mhz processor and 512 mb of ram which is frankly quite surprising. I suspect the lag is due to this rather puny processor. Then again, this is a first generation product. I want to see the day when I can run Alex on my watch and use it independently.

and how do you feel now?

hey, just found this review. if i'd have read this back when it was first posted, i'd have told you that there wasn't likely to be a second gen coming. and i was right. just new bands. and, thankfully, a new price point. I did get an apple watch about 6 months ago, but sent it back, for a few reasons. one of which, is that quite simply, like many of us, i am totally unused to having something on my wrist. however, i just got myself a free fitbit charge hr, and it makes me want a watch again. because the anoying part about fitbit, is that it doesn't sync with health on it's own, and even with the third party app that can sync fitbit to health, it won't bring over heart rate. i do like the idea of the fitbit and it's auto tracking of sleep, and i wish the apple watch would take that on board and provide a similar service. i know, i know. the battery sucks on the apple watch. and that's one thing that i like about the fitbit charge hr, is it has a 5! day! battery! mind you, it's not a smart watch, with all the bells and whistles of an apple watch. but still. i'm considering trying apple watch again at some point, specially with the new bands. like the original basic bands of the apple watch, the fitbit uses a plastic / rubber band, and i find that i don't like it so much. but with the new bands apple just announced, i might just like those. as they can breath better and flex better. so that's another point to apple watch being a potential buy for me once more.
So, as i asked. now that you know that a second gen hasn't come, although the OS has been updated, how do you feel towards the apple watch?